Poetry and Refugees

In 2011, I had just gotten back from spending a year in Damascus studying Arabic when I decided to explore the Pacific Northwest a bit by living in Seattle. While I was out there enjoying the beautiful Seattle summer, one of my friends told me about a refugee family that was looking for a mentor for their kids. Initially seeing it as an opportunity to brush up on my Arabic, saying yes to volunteering with that family wound up having a profound effect on me personally as well as professionally. 

I wound up spending a lot of time with this family and it gave me a perspective on life as a refugee that I didn't have previously. When I came back to Austin, I wound up getting a job at a refugee agency as a case manager on the resettlement team. I've worked with refugees in both a personal and professional capacity, hearing their stories, helping when I can, and experiencing in a very small way a side to life that I never thought I would experience. This poem that I wrote for Amaanah Refugee Services in Houston is a product of those experiences. According to the UNHCR there are 21.3 million refugees in the world. In a world where there is so much anti-immigrant sentiment, it's important that we band together and recognize our common humanity. 

A Mosque in Damascus

I am in a mosque in Damascus. The red and blue carpet smells of ittar as I place my face upon the ground in prostration. The soft whispers of dhikr and recitation of God’s words caress the walls and windows of the musallah. Shelves of gold inked books stand at attention, guarding the perimeter of the Sacred. I wish peace upon my shoulders and I soak in the spirit of the room. This is a house of worship. I choose an old Quran from the multitude and search for a place to sit. Finding an empty pillar, I place myself at its base, legs crossed, and open the book at The Opening.

“In the name of Allah, the most merciful, the source of mercy.”

I form each letter in my mind, following each vowel, each inflection. My voice just escapes my breath, hovering like mist upon the ocean shore. I whisper God’s words to myself and to my angels.

A half hour passes and I scan the room for my teacher. He is late. I continue in my recitation, practicing the sounds I imbued last week. Another piece of an hour goes by and I return the Quran to its home. I leave the mosque and place my tired shoes on my feet.

I walk along a side street, staring into hummus shops and bakeries. I hail a taxi and tell the driver to take me back to my apartment. The driver lights a local cigarette and offers me one. I decline his offer.

We drive quickly until we hit traffic in Muhajireen. I decide it is faster to walk from here. I pay the driver and grab my pack. I walk along Jisr al-Abyad, thinking of dinner and my research paper. It’s just a Tuesday in Damascus.

New Website and things

So I'm currently working on my new site and am so excited about it! I've had the old Wordpress blog for a good while now and thanks to the urging and help from my family, especially Mummy, Baba, and Apajan, I've gone ahead and updated. Hopefully it will be  easier to access as well as navigate compared to the old imaad.com and I hope you guys have a good time browsing through poetry and whatnot. I did lose some posts when I transferred my old blog to this site, but I'll be working on making sure all of the important posts have made it through the move. I kind of feel like Woody from Toy Story when the family moved houses, and I'm trying to make sure all the toys got on the moving truck. Anyway, I really hope you guys enjoy the site and remember kids, always brush your teeth*!

*Stupendous Man reference**
**Calvin and Hobbes reference***
***I don't know how to properly signify references

Ethnic Tacos

I'm going to preface this story by saying that it's not as intense as you want it to be. It was just a funny thing that I saw while I was waiting for tacos. Not sure if it deserved a blog post, but looking back on some of my previous posts, the bar for what constitutes a post is not set very high.

I had ordered some barbacoa tacos and a coke. I usually order five tacos but I knew that I was going to a coffee shop afterward and thought that I should cut down to four to, you know, be healthy. I love coming to this taco place in Dallas because the tacos are just too good. It's a shabby little hut that's next to an almost run down gas station, but the tacos are so fresh, the salsita so biting, and the sense of fulfillment after eating so complete that I keep coming back. Also each taco costs like $1.50 or something so there's that.

Anyway, as I'm sitting on the hood of Nina (Nina is my car for those who do not follow this blog regularly) waiting for my tacos, the elotes guy starts setting up his cart next to the taco hut. Elotes are basically corn on the cob with butter, sour cream, chili, and cheese added to it. It's pretty amazing. Anyway I love watching this guy set up because he's an older gentleman who looks like he's been serving elotes for the past 30 years. Anyway, I'm sitting on my car watching this guy open up blocks of butter, dump huge globs of sour cream into metal boxes, pretty much the standard elote cart procedure, when this family walks up to the taco hut.

This family is made up of a white father, an Asian mother, and a group of children who are not important to this story. I should note at this point that the majority of the clientele i.e., all those standing around this hut waiting for their tacos, are Hispanic and they all order in Spanish. So the Asian mother, who has been designated as the most culturally informed family member is burdened with ordering tacos for her brood. She struggles to order her six tacos in the most broken Spanish that I've heard in a long time. The husband sort of quietly adds to the order by loudly whispering in his wife's ear in English that he wants bistec, and the wife proceeds to translate, although "translate" is a strong word here. The whole thing seemed a bit too complicated for tacos, so when the mom finally finished her order, the lady who works for the taco place asks her in perfect English, "Would you like flour or corn tortillas?"

The mom, obviously shocked that the woman who she had tried to communicate with through Rosetta Stone Spanish spoke English asked her to repeat the question. Anyway, in the end, everybody went home with tacos and I wound up with a blog post so we're all winners.

Now that I've had time to digest it all, I guess the moral of the story is that next time you're at a taco place that you love, order five tacos. Because four tacos just isn't enough.

Full Circle

I was 11 when I saw the Kaa’ba for the first time. The black satin sky of that Meccan night engulfed the white marble floor of Masjid al-Haram like the gaping hole of a lion’s mouth swallowing its own teeth. I was wearing the customary white towels, and hoping that I had wrapped them tight enough around my slight body. Nothing would be more embarrassing than to drop my towels in front of the Kaa’ba. Underwear was forbidden and my entire extended family was with us.

I remember walking through the gate of the mosque in Mecca and seeing the Kaa’ba unfurl in front of me as I walked closer toward it. It was smaller than I had expected. Every picture I had seen had been of millions of worshippers circling this immense cube of black. Standing in front of it, waiting to be overwhelmed, I remember thinking, “This whole place looks fake.”

But there was no time to think about reality, I had some walking to do. Tawaaf, that is the name of the circumambulation around the Kaa’ba. While making tawaaf, it is difficult to focus on much else other than staying on your feet. The closer you get to the Kaa’ba the denser the crowd becomes, and the harder it is to move. Round and round we went, repeating the strange Arabic words that our bearded religious guide was chanting.

I had never worshiped like this before. Prayer for me was always that of rigid structure, a lifelong practice of straight angles, formulas, and perfect timing.

Face 43.5 degrees from North, or the most direct line to Mecca from my location.

Stand straight. Place hands at side. State intention. Raise hands to ears. Begin.

Say: Chapter 1 + at least three lines from any other chapter.

Bend at waist Stand Prostrate Sit Prostrate Sit Praise God Repeat

It was all very linear.

But here, at the House of God, we worshiped in a circle. You can imagine how my mind exploded. I was overwhelmed by the scene. Hundreds of electrons revolving around a cubed nucleus of spirituality. Prayers from black, yellow, brown, and white. Singular images are still imprinted on my mind from that first visit. An old Turkish woman with her arms around the waist of her six-foot tall bearded son. My uncle’s wife protecting her baby. Our religious guide booming prayers that we were told to repeat, his red and white Saudi head covering thrown casually over his shoulders as his black forest of a beard perfectly framed his white teeth.

The closer I got to the Kaa’ba the more things descended into chaos. Like Marlow’s descent toward Kurtz, my family and I circled the Kaa’ba getting closer and closer to the center with each passing revolution. The crowd became denser, the chanting louder, the movement faster. As we got to the inner circles, it was impossible for my entire family to stick together. Most of them leaned their way out, like oil rising above water they floated their way to the outer circles. My father and I decided to go deeper. He placed me between his arms, forming a barrier between myself and the surrounding chaos.

We were now in the innermost circle. People were crying, burying their faces in the cloth of the Kaa’ba. It was a surreal experience for me as I was protected by my father’s arms. I was able to look at the swarming mass of people around me as an observer. I reached my hand out and touched the sacred cloth thinking about how they must replace it twice a year because of people like me wearing it down to its fibers. Well, not exactly like me, I was not sprawled against it as many of my fellow Muslims were. They were pushing and shoving and crying and sweating. Most of the men were in towels, and I thought how convenient that they are in towels. They can just wipe the sweat off with them.

My father, I’m sure, did not have such an ethereal stroll around the Kaa’ba. Fighting off tens of bodies in the throes of religious fervor while protecting a daydreaming 11-year old boy was most likely not the most spiritual of experiences.

Eventually we forced our way to the heart of the Kaa’ba. The Black Stone. According to legend, the Black Stone is a heavenly meteorite that was once white but has since turned black from the sins of humanity. It has been narrated that the Black Stone will intercede for those who have touched it on the Day of Judgment. Regardless of the stories, people now fight to touch it, kiss it, and ask for blessings in front of it. They fight hard.

As my father and I were mere feet away from the stone, all pretenses of religiosity and sanctity by the people were lost. We were not in Masjid al-Haram. We were at the Black Stone. Gone was the serenity and peace that identified the outer circles. Gone was the crying and chanting that I had associated with all worshippers here. These people desired one thing and one thing alone - to touch the Black Stone. There was an armed guard sitting above the stone that would break people apart if things got too violent. He was busy.

Looking at the madhouse that was the area immediately surrounding the stone, I knew that it was impossible for us to reach it, let alone touch it. People were throwing their bodies at a chance to experience the heavenly stone. My father fought our way toward the tumultuous mass pushing, squeezing, and surging forward. His arms were no longer sufficient to protect me from the onslaught. I was being jostled around like a bean in a bag with only my father’s body keeping me upright. The pressure was incredible. Somehow, we made it to the edge of the Black Stone crowd, but there was no way in. Not an inch of space was available to butt our way into the place in front of the stone. It was a struggle to just stand in place. Suddenly a man, or an angel, looked at my father and myself and gave up his spot for us to enter the fray. With no time for thanks, we took his place in front of the stone as he was pushed back into the current. I remember seeing flashes of the silver frame as bodies were flailing at the Black Stone. I was never going to be tall enough to stick my face near it, and I remember feebly reaching my hands out to touch the stone. Suddenly, through some superhuman act, my father picked me up off the ground and shoved me into the crevice that housed the Black Stone. How he managed to do this is still a mystery. Whenever I ask him he just smiles, shakes his head, and says, “It wasn’t easy.”

When my father lifted me off the ground, I found myself completely alone with the Black Stone. I had a half second to inhale its sweet fragrance, and then I instinctively reached my head in and lightly kissed the soft blackness. Then my father and I were pushed back into the ocean of bodies like fish caught in a jet stream.

Looking back on that trip to Mecca, I was struck by the dichotomy between worship at home and worship at the House of God. How could they be so different? Was one better than the other? Is the linear prayer that I had been taught the correct way to pray and the circular madness that I found in Saudi the exception?

And then I saw the relationship. I saw how the lines that we form to pray outside of Mecca are not lone beams shooting toward a singular target, but are the lines that color in a global circle. This circle that is formed through the prayer of Muslims facing Mecca from around the world is not only centered upon a single point, but it is moving. Just as pilgrims circumambulate the Kaa’ba in tawaaf, the global circle of prayer is pivoting around that same point, the Kaa’ba. As we pass the different time zones, Muslims are going in and out of prayer like Olympians passing on the torch, ensuring that humanity is in constant circumambulation of God’s house on Earth. When my lone prayer in Austin is complete, I know that somewhere after me there is a man, or a woman, or a boy, or a girl, or a group, or a mosque that starts their prayer where I stopped mine. By partaking in the five daily prayers, I am not simply fulfilling my religious obligation, but I am participating in the global prayer, the global tawaaf, in a constant universal remembrance that fails only when individuals stop passing on the torch.

I took a Differential Equations class once, and one of the main things we focused on the first month was solving linear equations. My teacher always reminded us that linear equations rarely show up in real life and that most of the math that we would be dealing with later on would be on non-linear systems. One student raised his hand and asked why, then, are we studying linear functions. My teacher laughed and said apart from linear functions generally being more solvable, a useful (and sometimes the only) way to attack a non-linear function is by zooming in close enough to it until the non-linear appears linear.

On the individual level, the function of prayer is linear, rigid, and uncompromising. But zooming out to the global stage, when looking at the function as a whole, prayer is a circle, a most non-linear shape. It is a moving, spinning body that is at once linear and non-linear, serene and wild, a source of peace and struggle, yin and yang.

As I lay out my prayer mat each day, facing the Kaa’ba, I am proud of my line in the circle. I am proud to pass on the torch.

A Letter to In-N-Out Burger

I wrote this letter when I was in Syria a few years ago. It's pretty self explanatory. I just found it as I was going through some of my writings. Enjoy. ******************************************************************************************

Dear In-N-Out Burger,

I am currently in Syria undertaking a yearlong study of the Arabic language at the University of Damascus. I love Syrian culture, and am enjoying the amazing foods that Syria has to offer. However, as I was lounging around my apartment last week, wondering which falafel store I should hit up for lunch, my roommate walked in wearing an In-N-Out T-shirt. The groan that emanated from my body was not unlike that of a starving gorilla. Here we are, two months into this twelve-month endeavor, and we both suddenly realized that we will not be able to savor a morsel of your delicious burgers for another ten months. We both had to sit down as the gravity of this atrocity hit us like a pair of 4x4 animal style burgers.

Lying on the living room couch in the Syrian summer heat, we fantasized about your burgers for a solid hour, dreaming up tantalizing combinations of double doubles and milkshakes, and regaling ourselves with stories of our finest In-N-Out moments. I will not lie, the thought of flying home under the pretense of visiting our families but really just coming back for your burgers shifted from pleasant afternoon fantasy to us heading over to an internet café to look up tickets. The prices of airline tickets home brought us back to reality and we walked home in the 115-degree weather with our In-N-Out dreams utterly smashed.

It wouldn’t be so bad if we could get a decent burger in this country, but for all the times we’ve tried we haven’t found something that meets our burger-standard. We have resigned ourselves to the fact that we will have to wait until next June until we can partake in the glory that is the In-N-Out burger.

This leads me to the purpose of my letter. If we cannot have In-N-Out burgers in Syria, then we will make sure that upon our return to America, we shall go on an In-N-Out run for the ages. I speak not of a midnight In-N-Out run with your buddies, but of a journey. Nay, a quest, starting from Tucson, AZ and ending in San Francisco, CA where we will visit every (a lot of) In-N-Outs along the way. We will wear nothing but In-N-Out clothing, and we shall never take off our In-N-Out hats.

I end this declaration now with the undying love and hope that I have for In-N-Out.

I thank you all for your time.

Time

Time stopped for a little while today. I was sitting at a café on the edge of a lake. Book in hand, croissant in belly, coffee in between. The book I had was about time and death and war and fate. I finished the book in what seemed a moment frozen. When I checked the time on my phone, it really had frozen. Stuck at 12:17pm. I opened the phone casing and removed the battery, determined to bring my phone to my watch’s reality. When I did so I realized that the emptiness that was there as I was reading had suddenly disappeared. The 3:48pm sun made me squint. I was back in now. My phone decided to agree with my watch. Who was to say that my phone was wrong? Who was to say that my watch was correct. Is correct? Watch, phone, sun, with no one to tell the difference.

Hotsauce

I looked at my tumblr site randomly today (I never look at that, I actually forgot that I had one until I saw a link for tumblr and realized that I set one of those up), and saw a post by Big Poppa E that brought some sad news to me. Phil Aulie, a local poet and musician here in Austin passed away. He was 25. I competed against him back when I first started doing slam. His most successful poem back then was one called "Hotsauce," I still remember it. Anyway, sad news.

Excerpt: The Truth

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

 

William Blake

“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”

 

I sat with a man upon the edge of the abyss. I sat in silence, listening to the song of his soul. He listened. My feet dangled off into the darkness, my ears alive. We sat as immortal statues for forty years, listening. Then he whispered,

“Why do you sit on the edge of oblivion?”

Tears, or blood, fell from my eyes. He caught a drop and threw it into the abyss.

“Why do you sit here, my brother?” he asked again.

I told him I was dying.

“There is no death,” he replied.

“Then where are we?” I asked.

“We are here.”

“Where is God?”

“He is here.”

“At the bottom?”

“Perhaps. We won’t know until we go.”

“Down?”

“There is no down, only forward.”

 

So we dove, like tears falling from the face of an orphan, into the abyss. We fell into a storm. Lightning illuminated the fall in flashes. Clouds, dense, black, eyes, dense, black, silence. We fell into an ocean.

The ocean was black and tasted like angel sweat. The storm above us suddenly cleared. He and I alone in the black and salty ocean with midnight above us. Stars, moon, and the blue that breathes just before black covered our eyes. I looked up at the moon and I could see it as a sphere, getting larger. It was falling.

The moon fell on top of the man and me, pushing us for miles and miles until we reached an island. The island was made of shadow and light and sand and rock and men and women and song and silence.

 

Upon the sand we sat.

 

“Where are we?” I asked through sodden lips.

“We are here.”

“Is God here?”

“Yes.”

“Can we speak to him?”

“We’ve been speaking to him.”

“Why is he silent?”

“He is never silent, you simply cannot hear him.”

“Why are we here?”

“We jumped.”

“But why are we here?”

“Because this is where we are.”

“Do you not know?”

“I know not, but I know why not.”

“Then why not-here?”

“Ask your self.”

So I asked my self, but my self was silent.

“Am I not my self?”

“Who are you?”

“I am me.”

“Perhaps.”

 

“This island is strange,” I said, “there are people, and things, but no food.”

“Why do you say there is no food?”

“I see no trees, no animals.”

“Is that all food?”

“For humans, yes, that is food.”

“Then I think, my brother, you must expand your definition of human.”

“Are we in heaven?” I asked.

“Are you close to God?” he answered.

“How do I know?” I asked.

“You will know.”

“Then this is not Heaven.”

“You are right, this is not Heaven.”

“So this is Hell?”

“Not-Heaven is Hell.”

“But where is the fire, where is Satan, where is Sin, and Death, and torture?”

“There is no death.”

“If there is no death, then how are we in Hell?”

“Hell is simply not-Heaven.”

“But punishment?”

“Is not-Heaven not punishment enough?”

“I do not want to be in Hell.”

“Then let us leave.”

“But how can we leave?”

“By first standing up. After we stand, we must decide where we want to go. Once we’ve decided where, then we’ll discuss the how.”

 

So we stood, he and I, on the island beach of Hell, looking out onto the ocean, with men and women and song and silence behind us.

 

“Where shall we go?” he asked me.

“Let us go to heaven.”

“Where is heaven?”

“As you said, it is where you are close to God.”

“Not where, but when.”

“When?”

“Yes, when.”

“Can we be in Heaven in Hell?”

“We can be in Heaven wherever we are. We can be in Heaven when we are in Hell, and we can be in Hell when we are in Heaven.”

“But you said that Hell is not-Heaven. How can we be in Heaven and Hell at once?”

“Imagine you are a magnet. Heaven is constantly pulling you toward itself. When you are facing Heaven, you are in it, but if you turn away from it, you are not.”

“To enter Heaven, all we must do is face it?”

“You must face it, and get pulled toward it.”

“That does not sound as difficult as the books make it out to be.”

“That’s the problem with books, my brother. They take what is free, and imprison it. Never cage a lion, never tame the ocean, never harness the wind, never stop motion.”

“But how do we make sense of anything? How do we live? How do we control our lives?”

“You cannot control that which is inherently uncontrollable. You may slow it down, you may hold it for a time, but eventually, what moves will move, what is held will be dropped, what is caged will break free, and what is set will come apart. Humans have tried desperately to control their lives, break it into sections, subjects, time…these are all falsehoods. What has been will be, what will be has been, what is now is always.”

“But what of the after-life?”

“There is no after-life. There is only life.”

“But death is real. A man’s head may be chopped off. His heart stopped. His life, over.”

“What about sleep? When you see a man sleeping, is he not dead?”

“Of course not. He is breathing, his brain is working.”

“If you did not know that breathing was a sign of life, what would you think of the sleeping man?”

“The man was not moving, not speaking, not responding. I would think him dead.”

“Yes. Death is simply a term used to describe something from which we can no longer detect life. In the way that knowledge allowed us to understand that sleeping is not death, do you not think that we will eventually learn that death is not death? There are signs of life that we cannot understand or sense. There is no death my brother, only life.”

 

“I must ask you some things.”

“By all means.”

“What is a mosque?”

“A mosque is a place to worship the one God.”

“What is hijab?”

“Hijab is only modesty.”

“What is jihad?”

“Jihad is the struggle to turn toward heaven.”

“What is faith?”

“Faith is the belief that knowledge exceeds our capacity to contain it.”

“What is God?”

“The center from which we all dance.”

“What is art?”

“Our expression of God.”

“What is poetry?”

“Creation through destruction."

 

I pondered this for a moment. Then I looked at the man and told him that I wanted to face the Truth.

 

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“How do I do it?”

“Let me ask you a question.”

“Anything.”

“Where are we?”

“We are here.”

“And what are we doing here?” he asked.

“We are sleeping,” I replied.

“Then, my brother, in order to face the Truth, Heaven, God, the Center, what must we do?”

“We must wake up.”

 

And we woke.

Slavery

So when I was 19 or so, I had a nightmare. I was placed in the slave owning Americas, specifically at a slave auction. I just had one image of a black slave being strung up and tortured and then I woke up. The feelings of disgust, revulsion, sadness, and anger that I felt with that brief glimpse of a black slave being tortured spurred me to get up in the middle of the night and write about it. This is what came out.

I dreamt of torture last night. while in a deep sleep men and women mutilated at their masters feet. their eyes bulged out, falling out of sockets ropes hanging bodies too beaten to notice their families strung, hung up to dry, blood dripping off severed limbs whips and knives to make sure they wouldn’t die before their screams echoed off clouds, and their blood curdled the ground. dried red brown, cracking dry skin crack whip crack hurry up boy, dance off the ship.

I've often gone back to this poem trying to expand upon it, revise it, add to it, but I was never able to. I tried making it a part of a message against slavery, but this was simply the reflection of a dream.

Anyway, the reason that I'm bringing this up now is that I recently saw a picture that conveys the exact image and feelings that I felt in my dream.

I've been reading about William Blake and this picture showed up on his wiki page. I was kind of shocked to see it because it was so similar to the dream I had. Some poems are never finished, but I wanted to share this anyway. As I compare my poem with the image, there are so many commonalities, I would venture to guess that my subconscious had stored this image and I used it to write the poem. The eyes, the fact that his arms aren't seen, the blood on the ground, the ship. It's quite startling really. This is the second time that I've written something that is already in the collective subconscious of humanity, without me being cognitive of its existence.

Nina

So in honor of the naming of my car, I have decided to post some info on one of my favorite artists, Nina Simone. By info, I mean, I'm just going to link you guys to some of my favorite songs by her. Four Women http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCwME6Jpn3s

Mississippi Goddamn http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTvIPmtyFrM&feature=related

(also, when I just wrote out "mississippi" I had spell it out in my head in that elementary school cadence)

Black is the Color http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWmCbEbMmeU

These are just a few, and I encourage you all to do some youtube hopping yourselves. There's something very spiritual about her voice and her piano. That's all for tonight.

Tim Tebow

Now, the only person I've heard praised like Jesus more than Tim Tebow is Ronald Reagan at a GOP debate, but this was kind of awesome. "The fact that Tebow had 316 yards passing and averaged 31.6 yards per pass in the game didn't escape notice on Sunday night. Tebow wore "John 3:16" on his eye black in the 2009 BCS Championship game and has since become identified with the famous Bible message. The coincidental stats caused millions of fans to perform Google searches on the Bible passage in the past 24 hours. Here's one more unbelievable stat: John Ourand of Sports Business Journal reports that the final quarter-hour television rating for the Broncos-Steelers game was, you guessed it, 31.6."

Weird.

Now, while I can't approve of Tebow's iconic post TD prayer mode, or the fact that he throws some of the ugliest passes I've ever seen in a football game, I cannot deny the inspiration. There's just something magical about Tebow.